Court Procedure Matters

On Jan. 25, 2019, U.S. House of Representatives Rules Committee Chairman James P. McGovern, D-Mass., issued regulations governing staff deposition authority in the 116th Congress, pursuant to his authority under H. Res. 6. In passing H. Res. 6, the newly empowered House Democratic majority drastically increased House committees’ investigative power by allowing committee staff to conduct depositions without members present — a stark departure from precedent. This change was a dramatic first step in the House Democratic majority’s efforts to ramp up oversight of both the executive branch and the private sector.

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Taxes and tax litigation can be complex and confusing. Taxpayers have the option of filing a petition in the United States Tax Court (Tax Court) prior to payment of any asserted deficiency. Alternatively, taxpayers can pay the deficiency, file a claim for refund with the Internal Revenue Service and, if that claim is denied or more than six months have elapsed, file a complaint in local District Court or the Court of Federal Claims requesting a refund. These forum rules sometimes trip up taxpayers and can lead to the filing of a suit in the wrong court.

In the Protecting Access to the Courts for Taxpayers Act (H.R. 3996), Congress has provided relief for taxpayers in this type of situation through an amendment to 28 USC section 1631:

Whenever a civil action is filed in a court as defined in section 610 of this title or an appeal, including a petition for review of administrative action, is noticed for or filed with such a court and that court finds that there is a want of jurisdiction, the court shall, if it is in the interest of justice, transfer such action or appeal to any other such court (or, for cases within the jurisdiction of the United States Tax Court) in which the action or appeal could have been brought at the time it was filed or noticed, and the action or appeal shall proceed as if it had been filed in or noticed for the court to which it is transferred on the date upon which it was actually filed in or noticed for the court from which it is transferred.

Practice Point: Allowing improperly filed cases to be transferred to the Tax Court is a welcome development for taxpayers. The amendment to 28 USC section 1631 protects taxpayers in situations where a complaint is filed within 90 days of receipt of a Notice of Deficiency in a refund jurisdiction when it should have been filed in the Tax Court.

On December 10, 2018, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of James L. Kisor v. Peter O’Rourke, Acting Secretary of Veteran Affairs, S.Ct. Dkt. No. 18-15. Although this is not a tax case, it has significant implications for taxpayers and tax practitioners. The reason: the Court will finally squarely address the issue of whether it should overrule its controversial opinions in Auer v. Robbins, 519 US 452 (1997) and Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 US 410 (1945). Those opinions held that an agency is uniquely positioned to interpret any ambiguity in its own regulations and, therefore, such interpretations should be afforded controlling deference so long as reasonable. The Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Kisor is significant because the sole question to be considered is “[w]hether the Court should overrule Auer and Seminole Rock” and not how to apply that doctrine.

In the tax context, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Tax Division have both argued that interpretations taken in unpublished guidance are eligible for Auer deference, even if such positions are articulated for the first time on brief in a pending case in which the agency is a party. Courts have not been uniform in their application of Auer. For example, the Tax Court has indicated that to receive deference the IRS’s position should be in published guidance while some courts have given deference to statements made on brief.

The death of Justice Scalia, who ironically wrote Auer but later advocated for its demise, seemed to strike a blow to those seeking to overrule it. However, with the recent additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, it appears that the Supreme Court many now have a majority of Justices in the anti-Auer camp given that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito have all expressed doubts about the doctrine in the past. Additionally, the continuing role of Chevron deference has been questioned and, if Auer is overruled, Chevron could be the next deference battleground.

We will continue to follow this case closely and provide updates in the future. In the meantime, the links below contain prior discussions on Auer and other forms of deference in the tax context.

Back in April, we discussed possible changes to the Tax Court Rules of Practice and Procedure based on comments made at the Tax Court Judicial Conference in Chicago. On November 30, 2018, the Tax Court announced the adoption of amendments to its Rules in several areas. Certain amendments are discussed below.

Payments to the Tax Court

Payments to court, which previously were required to be made by cash, check or money order, may now be made electronically through Pay.gov.

Filing

A paper may be filed electronically either during or outside of business hours, unless the paper relates to an ongoing trial session, in which case it generally must be filed at the session. A document electronically filed is considered timely if filed at or before 11:59 pm, Eastern Time, on the last day of the applicable period for filing. This amendment comports with the practice in other federal courts, e.g., US District Courts.

Signature

A signature on an electronic filing does not have to be handwritten if the filing meets the standards required by the court. An email address must be provided immediately beneath the signature.

Electronic Filing of Petitions

The court is in the process of implementing procedures to allow the electronic filing of a petition to commence a case. Additional information will be furnished to taxpayers on the Tax Court’s website in its electronic filings guidelines.

Evidence

In accordance with recent legislation, the Rules were updated to require that the court to follow the Federal Rules of Evidence instead of the rules of evidence applicable in trials without a jury in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Passport Actions

In accordance with recent legislation, new Rules are provided regarding the court’s jurisdiction and review of determinations to certain passport revocation actions.

Interest Abatement

Certain changes were made to the interest abatement rules and a corresponding change was made to the sample form of petition contained on the Tax Court’s website.

On October 27, the US District Court for the District of Minnesota issued an opinion in United States v. Adams, No. 0:17-cr-00064-DWF-KMM (D. Minn. Oct. 27, 2018), addressing attorney-client privilege issues relevant to accountants working alongside tax attorneys. The court adopted a narrow, nuanced view of the waiver that applies when the taxpayer discloses an accountant’s work to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by filing an amended return.

In Adams, the taxpayer is facing a 17 count superseding indictment in which the government alleges he spearheaded a scheme to defraud investors in two companies and to embezzle corporate funds for his personal benefit. In late 2017, the government added three counts of tax evasion to the indictment, alleging that amended returns the taxpayer filed in late 2011 for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 tax years were willfully false under IRC § 7206(1).

The addition of the tax evasion charges is significant for the government’s arguments for waiver of privilege and work-product protection. It appears that the taxpayer filed the amended returns at issue in late 2011 under advice of counsel, working with the taxpayer’s accountant under a Kovel arrangement. (We have previously discussed the scope of Kovel protections here.) In our experience, filing of amended returns in advance of a criminal investigation or trial is one potential strategy to demonstrate good faith and lack of criminal intent and, if combined with payment, amended returns may have the added benefit of reducing the tax loss at issue in a criminal case. Of course, every case is different, but it appears this may have been the strategy at work in Adams. Continue Reading Kovel Protections Upheld | Government Loses Aggressive Arguments for Waiver of Privilege for Controversy Advice

Andy Roberson, Kevin Spencer and Emily Mussio recently authored an article for Law360 entitled, “A Look At Tax Code Section 199’s Last Stand.” The article discusses the IRS’s contentious history in handling Code Section 199 and the taxpayers’ continued battle to claim the benefit – even after its recent repeal.

Access the full article.

Originally published in Law360, November 2018.

Last May, the US Tax Court (Tax Court) announced that approximately 70 percent of all taxpayers in Tax Court cases and approximately 90 percent of taxpayers in small tax cases are self-represented. The Tax Court encourages assistance by pro bono attorneys at its calendar calls, and strives to provide information to taxpayers about how they may be able to connect with those attorneys (more background on the Tax Court’s efforts can be found here). Although pro bono attorneys appear at Tax Court calendar calls to assist self-represented taxpayers, ethical rules may limit the ability of these attorneys to provide certain kinds of legal assistance. For example, once an attorney makes an appearance in a court case, typically the attorney cannot simply withdraw and stop representing the client. The attorney may have to get both the client’s and court’s consent to withdraw from the representation. The inability to provide legal advice for one or more occasions without potentially being stuck on a case is perceived to dissuade many practitioners from providing pro bono service.

In response to these concerns, the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Taxation recently provided comments to the Tax Court regarding potential amendments to its rules relating to appearance and representation before the Tax Court. The ABA comments encourage the Tax Court to consider a limited appearance rule for pro bono attorneys appearing at the calendar call. This one-time appearance representation may encourage more attorneys to get involved in providing pro bono legal assistance to taxpayers. We will provide an update on any future action that the Tax Court may take in this regard.

Links to McDermott posts and articles about tax pro bono efforts by volunteer attorneys are listed below:

 

The US Tax Court is alive with action these days. First, two new judges will start soon after they are sworn in. Ms. Elizabeth Copeland and Mr. Patrick Urda were nominated on August 2017 for 15-year terms to fill openings created by retiring tax court judges. They were confirmed on August 28, 2018. Ms. Copeland will replace Judge James S. Halpern, who retired from the court on August 28, 2018, but continues to perform judicial duties as a Senior Judge on recall. Mr. Urda will replace Judge Diana L. Kroupa, who retired from the court in June 2014.

Second, the Tax Court announced that Senior Judge Carolyn P. Chiechi will retire, effective October 19, 2018. Judge Chiechi was appointed by President George H.W. Bush October 1, 1992, and took senior status in 2007. Any cases submitted or assigned to Judge Chiechi will be reassigned.

Finally, Senior Judge David Laro passed away on September 21, 2018. More information about Judge Laro can be found on the TaxProf Blog. Judge Laro started at the Tax Court in 1992 and was involved in several important cases. In addition, he is well known among practitioners for his use of concurrent expert testimony (also referred to as “hot tubbing”). We have previously written about Judge Laro’s use of hot tubbing here.

Prior coverage of Tax Court nominations can be found in our previously shared articles.

Summer is winding down and fall is approaching. Here are a few of the significant tax cases from the last few weeks.

Tax Court

  • YA Global Investments, LP v. Commissioner, 151 TC No. 2 (Aug. 8, 2018): The Tax Court held that withholding tax liability on effectively connected income of foreign partners is a partnership liability that constitutes a partnership item. The Tax Court has jurisdiction over the issue in a partnership-level proceeding.
  • Illinois Tool Works Inc. & Subsidiaries v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2018-121 (Aug. 6, 2018): The Tax Court held that intercompany loans constituted bona fide debt for US federal income tax purposes.
  • Becnel v. Commissioner, TC Memo. 2018-120 (Aug. 2, 2018): The Tax Court holds that a property developer’s yacht related expenses are non-deductible entertainment facility expenses under Code section 274.
  • Kane v. Commissioner, TC Memo. 2018-122 (Aug. 6, 2018): Code section 6672 trust fund recovery penalties were imposed on a third-party vendor that performed bookkeeping services and held signature authority over certain accounts for a taxpayer delinquent on employment taxes. The Tax Court found that a collection officer did not abuse their discretion in denying a collection alternative during the collection due process proceeding, particularly when the taxpayer failed to submit an offer in compromise and already disputed the merits of the penalty during the appeals process.

Continue Reading Recent Developments in US Federal Income Tax Litigation

On July 27, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Alta Wind v. United States, reversed and remanded what had been a resounding victory for renewable energy. The US Court of Federal Claims had ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to claim a Section 1603 cash grant on the total amount paid for wind energy assets, including the value of certain power purchase agreements (PPAs).

We have reported on the Alta Wind case several times in the past two years:

Government Appeal of Alta Wind Supports Decision to File Suit Now

Court Awards $206 Million to Alta Wind Projects in Section 1603 Grant Litigation; Smaller Award to Biomass Facility

Court Awards $206 Million to Alta Wind Projects in Section 1603 Grant Litigation; Smaller Award to Biomass Facility

Act Now To Preserve Your Section 1603 Grant

SOL and the 1603 Cash Grant – File Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

In reversing the trial court, the appellate court failed to answer the substantive question of whether a PPA that is part of the sale of a renewable energy facility is creditable for purposes of the Section 1603 cash grant.

Trial Court Decision

The Court of Federal Claims awarded the plaintiff damages of more than $206 million with respect to the cash grant under Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Section 1603 Grant). The court held that the government had underpaid the plaintiff its Section 1603 Grants arising from the development and purchase of large wind facilities when it refused to include the value of certain PPAs in the plaintiffs’ eligible basis for the cash grants. The trial court rejected the government’s argument that the plaintiffs’ basis was limited solely to development and construction costs. Instead, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the arm’s-length purchase price of the projects prior to their placed-in-service date informed the projects’ creditable value. The court also determined that the PPAs specific to the wind facilities should not be treated as ineligible intangible property for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. This meant that any value associated with the PPAs would be creditable for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant.

Federal Circuit Reverses and Remands 

The government appealed its loss to the Federal Circuit. In its opinion, the Federal Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, and remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions. The Federal Circuit held that the purchase of the wind facilities should be properly treated as “applicable asset acquisitions” for purposes of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 1060, and the purchase prices must be allocated using the so-called “residual method.” The residual method requires a taxpayer to allocate the purchase price among seven categories. The purpose of the allocation is to discern what amount of a purchase price should be ascribed to each category of assets, which may have significance for other parts of the IRC. For example, if the purchase price includes depreciable plant equipment and non-depreciable property (e.g., cash and marketable securities), the residual method asks the taxpayer to allocate the total purchase price between the property classes.

The Federal Circuit remanded the case back to the Claims Court to determine the proper allocation of the purchase prices of the wind facilities.

Why Is This Case Important?  

If you are in the renewable energy industry, this decision is likely very important. Indeed, there are numerous taxpayers who did not receive the full amount of their Section 1603 Grant based upon the government’s reduction of the claim for the value of a PPA. This case will have precedential effect on those taxpayers’ claims. Moreover, the decision will affect how the industry prices deals for renewable facilities. These transactions have historically involved substantial financial modeling based upon cash flows.

The Federal Circuit Left the Primary Issue Unanswered

The Federal Circuit left the primary issue in the case, whether the PPA is creditable for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant, to the trial court to decide on remand. Accordingly, if the trial court determines that the PPAs cannot be divorced from the wind farm facilities assets, they will be correctly allocated to “Class V” in IRC section 1060, and will be credit able for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. Implicitly, this is what the trial court had already decided, and the result would obtain the same economic result for the plaintiff as its original ruling. We will continue to follow this matter to see whether the trial court follows the prevailing thinking on this issue and of a decade of legal support.